Keeping perspective while writing

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Finishing your thesis or dissertation, or being a faculty member with publishing responsibilities, requires a lot of time and energy spent writing (among many other things). Indeed, it is a big part of being in the academy, and it can also be a difficult process. The plethora of “how to be more productive” blog posts out there just goes to show how much we fixate on writing, as that’s a key indicator of productivity for graduate students and faculty alike. And hearing the phrase “how to be more productive” can just make you feel like a paper mill whose main goal is to churn out final projects, taking the joy out of the process.

What’s often lost is some perspective on why writing matters and why we write in the academy. I would argue that remembering why, and also being a bit more reflective by thinking about your writing, would help many people have a better relationship with the process and help them to actually finish those writing projects they are doing. Stick with me:

Why do academics write?

To paraphrase Garvey (1972), communication is the essence of academia (and grad school). Yes, you are engaged in research, hopefully research that you really enjoy doing. But, you don’t just work in the lab or do textual analysis — you write about what happened during your research and what you discovered for an external audience beyond yourself. To adapt a common phrase: “If you don’t publish it (or defend it), it didn’t happen.” But you don’t write because you have to write up the results of your research. We write theses, dissertations, and journal articles because we have learned important things and made critical connections that are valuable for other people to know about. (Who, or how many, can be debatable, but at the very least, if you’re doing it, then it should be something worth knowing for other people.) We don’t write for the recognition, to prove how smart we are, or to churn out work not worth anything. We write for an audience who relies on what we are doing; we write to help build an informed citizenry; we write so that others may build on our work. All of these things means that we must be writing about what we are doing as academics.

Keeping Perspective

So, then, do you think about this when you sit down to write your thesis, dissertation, or journal article? Or do you sit down and write and instead think of how difficult it can be to type the right words and finish the project? Next time you have a writing session, start by thinking about why you are writing what you are writing. You don’t have to dwell on it for a long time, but acknowledge your purpose. For example, if you are a doctoral student, keep some perspective on the process. Yes, it is a required document, and when you finish, you will earn a PhD or EdD. But you are really writing for a couple of key reasons that aren’t just about finishing. One, you are earning an entry ticket into a research profession. This means that your goals in writing are to demonstrate to a small group of people with strong research credentials who are tasked with determining that you have what it takes to find research problems, design methods for solving it, conduct research, and see a large project through to completion. As such, your dissertation reflects this — you write chapter summaries in your introduction, you use transition paragraphs to explicitly link one chapter with the next, or one section of literature with your choice of methods, and so on.

The other thing you are doing in writing a dissertation is you are contributing to a field of research. So, you are writing about how the things you’ve been doing for the last year (or two or four) are things that other people who are interested in your topic should know about. Information they could use in future research. Information that builds on a long line of studies on a topic. Information that has determined the best method for approaching a problem. And so on. You have valuable things to say to a community of people interested in your area, and without finishing a dissertation, they can’t know what you’ve done.

How can you do this?

I think keeping perspective in your writing can easily be done with a little knowledge of your genre. Why are people interested in the kind of writing that you are doing? Keep them in mind while writing. Don’t think about how you have to churn out five more pages and your chapter or article will be done. Instead, think about how you can best tell your readers what you have done and found. If you are writing a research article, then one of your goals is to communicate what you’ve done in a way that clearly connects to work already accomplished in the field. Your readers are going to be other researchers and graduate students, but you might also be surprised at the broader audience you might have — the rise of science communication, for example, means that well-educated writers may adapt your article for broader publics and in a variety of venues. So, when you are writing, think about how you can best share what you know with the people who want to know it. Keep the perspective. Don’t “churn out pages” or have a “binge-writing” session. Be thoughtful and purposeful, and I bet things will go more smoothly.

Questions to ask to help you keep perspective:

  • What is the main purpose for writing this piece?
  • Who is interested in the information I have to share?
  • What organization and ideas will best communicate this to them?
  • What am I contributing to the field by writing?

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